Television can deliver arts for all
Are you ready? Have you steeled yourself for the Olympic onslaught which is about to be unleashed on our television screens from this evening?
For the next two weeks BBC1, BBC2 and BBC3 is going to be awash with a marathon of sporting endeavour. Sport is going to be force-fed to us in ways it has never before. Not even the World Cup or the Euro football championships will have dominated the schedules in the way the Olympics are going to.
As for me, I shall dip in and out of the coverage – mostly following Victoria Pendleton’s exertions (once again I reveal myself to be hideously shallow) – but on a more serious note it’s interesting to see so much time cheerfully being given over to sport. I hope that for the rest of the year television bosses are going to try very hard and redress the balance – boosting arts coverage and commissioning new drama.
At the moment the arts on television is becoming worryingly ghetto-ised. The South Bank Show died on ITV because it was tucked away in a variety of late-night slots; it was never on at the same time two weeks running, and suffered from poor advertising.
It can never be enough to simply say on the schedules The South Bank Show – you need to know who is going to be featured on The South Bank Show.
It’s gratifying that Melvyn Bragg’s flagship arts programme has been revived on Sky Arts but the result is that a wide-ranging general-interest arts show has moved from a free mainstream channel to a paid-for specialist ghetto.
Television works best when it mixes things up – when it surprises its audience. I love it when I stumble across something new – something that gets me excited.
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I was watching Later With Jools Holland last year when I chanced upon retro-songstress Imelda May performing. I was transfixed and stayed with the programme until the end just to discover who this amazing singer was.
The same thing has also happened with documentaries on BBC2 and BBC4 – you come across a programme on an artist, musician or film-maker which immediately grabs your attention because it offers a window onto a creative world that you wouldn’t have necessarily known was there. This is why you need arts programmes on mainstream channels: because they do offer something out of the ordinary – they provide talking points.
Specialist channels seem a good idea in the abstract but they are merely catering for the converted. The arts should be offering something for everyone. The arts shouldn’t be regarded as elitist and tucked away in some exclusive ghetto. The arts are about life and the world in which we all live.
Hopefully, recent pronouncements from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will mean there is going to be more general-interest arts programming available. His enthusiasm for the BBC’s digital arts imitative The Space has prompted him to indicate to the Arts Council that he would not be averse to the creation of a permanent digital arts channel streaming live broadcasts from a diverse range of arts events.
Talking about The Space he said: “Should we turn this into something more ambitious? A permanent digital channel with live broadcasts every night of our finest cultural offerings? Indeed, should it be a condition of government funding to supply live content – whether from museum exhibitions, hip-hop dancing from Sadler’s Wells, a live broadcast of Britten’s War Requiem or the entire Globe to Globe Shakespeare season?”
It’s an impressive statement of intent and it remains to be seen if it will be followed through, but it deserves to be supported. It’s good to see him talking about the service being made available free-of-charge to not only reach the largest possible audience but to develop new audiences.
This is something that ghetto arts channels, no matter how good they are, cannot do. The fact viewers have to pay to access them means you are already preaching to the converted.
The arts should never be regarded as elitist. It amazes me that they are, because they cover such a bewildering array of interests.
Hopefully, the appointment of culture and drama fan George Entwistle to the top job of BBC director general means Jeremy Hunt’s desire for more accessible arts may become a reality.
The problem is that in these straitened times arts and drama provision is more expensive than providing faux fly-on-wall documentaries like Big Brother, The Only Way Is Essex or Don’t Tell The Bride.
But Entwistle, during his stint as the BBC’s Head of Vision, was responsible for programming the excellent Hollow Crown and the BBC Shakespeare season which has just come to a close on BBC2 and BBC4, so this bodes well for the future.
To some degree it’s true that we live in a niche-interest, multi-channel world. But there is an argument that BBC1, ITV1 and Sky 1 could become taster channels for more extensive provision elsewhere.
We can’t turn back the clock and go back to a four-channel world but we can embrace the quality control ethos that made British TV the envy of the world. Look at Dr Who, Spooks, Line of Duty, The Hour and Sherlock and it’s clear that fantastic popular drama is still being made. In fact it’s in rude health. In terms of documentaries BBC 4, in recent weeks, have been turning out some brilliant history and entertainment documentaries which have explored everything from lost civilisations to the sexual allure of art nouveau to the story of the British musical. Punk Britannia even managed to mix music and social history.
It’s a heady mix that, when combined, provides a broad scope of programmes which manages to be both popular and culturally relevant. It’s about making the arts accessible. It’s 21st century Reithan values without the lecturing and finger-wagging.
As with all things, the best way to pique someone’s interest is through education. Schools have to make the arts accessible and interesting. Macbeth has to be sold to youngsters as an atmospheric tale of murder, betrayal and witchcraft – rather than a worthy literary text which has to be studied as a dry academic exercise.
No-one should open up the book until they have seen it performed either on stage or on TV.
As far as the money is concerned – hopefully Jeremy Hunt’s nudge to the Arts Council will encourage them to cough up the necessary funds to make this happen without the licence fee increasing.
At the end of the day TV needs to inspire and intrigue as well as entertain; and, if it does that, and includes programmes for all, then people won’t get so upset about the size of the licence fee.